It is an old axiom that “the truth can set you free.” And even a Russian proverb argues that it is “better to be slapped with the truth than to be kissed with a lie.” I thought of that after watching the Senate Intelligence Committee trying to get to the facts of the Russian interference in American democracy. I also thought of how the truth is always hard to find and no amount of facts can simply add up to the whole truth.
After listening to the subsequent arguing of legal experts and partisan apologists, I thought of the Chinese proverb that suggests: there are only two ways to reach the truth, through literature and agriculture. In other words, digging¬ may eventually get to the bottom of things; but a story can be a bridge that leads more directly to the truth.
A wise tale from Asia begins where an old man gets caught stealing some herbs or fruit in a marketplace. He was quickly dragged before a harsh judge who desired to make an example of the dishonesty of others. Being unable to pay an outlandish fine, the old fellow was thrown into the depths of a dungeon. Left alone in the darkness, he recalled the old notion that the truth often lies at the bottom of a well. Soon after that, he persuaded the jailer to bring him to the royal court because he had a gift so valuable it could only be given to a king or a powerful ruler.
It happened to be a big day when the old man appeared at court. The entire cabinet was there and all the people were watching as he pulled a little box from his cloak and handed it to the king. The ruler was known to love expressions of loyalty as well as expensive gifts; but as soon as he opened the box, the king became flushed with rage. He demanded an explanation for why he was holding nothing but an ordinary plum pit. The thief agreed that it was a plum pit, but insisted that it was by no means ordinary. Whoever planted that pit would reap a reward of golden plums from a tree that would sprout, grow leaves and produce fruit all at once.
The king asked if the seed had such magical powers, why had he not planted it himself and avoided a life of poverty and trouble. The prisoner explained that there was one condition that came with the plum seed. Whoever planted the pit had to have a clear conscious and a soul unblemished by lying or cheating. Since he was known to be a thief, it would not work for him. However, such a great ruler as the king claimed to be must have a conscience clear of any lying or cheating. Surely, if the king planted the pit it would grow quickly and produce great wealth for everyone.
The king became quiet having to reflect upon various shady dealings and some oversized lies he had used to gain wealth and power. Deep inside, he knew that he could not plant the seed without revealing his blemished soul to everyone. So, saying that he had never possessed a green thumb, the king passed the pit to his daughter, the princess, who was sitting in for the queen who was rarely seen. After a hurried consultation with her husband and their lawyers, the princess passed the thing to the Secretary of State. Of course, he had bent so many rules and made so many crooked deals that he quietly tossed it to the Attorney General.
Looking deeply troubled and insecure, the head of the justice department quickly recused himself and passed the pit to Secretary of Defense who practically choked before giving it to the heads of the intelligence agencies who simply refused to answer any questions or explain themselves. The troublesome pit wound up in the hands of the official spokespersons for the king who stated unequivocally, that no one could possibly conclude that the king could have lied or cheated or violated any rules.
All eyes turned back to the old thief, waiting to hear what he might say. The prisoner stated the old truth that when a powerful man lies, many others are quick to extoll it as the truth. He said that it was clear that each of them were guilty of multiple lies and violations that they did not wish to have reviewed in public. He pointed out that everyone with the eyes to see already knew that they misused their power and authority. They repeatedly acted out of self-interest instead of the interests of the country. Yet, they rarely lost their lofty positions and hardly ever paid for their crimes.
At that point, the king called all the officials into consultation to discuss the danger of their current situation. Then, he announced that they would all contribute to pay the fine placed upon the old man and release him from any other penalties. As the old thief turned to leave, the king couldn’t help but ask if it was really true that the plum pit could produce golden fruit. The old man simply slipped it back into his cloak, and walked off a free soul again.
The story begins with an old thief partly to make clear that no one is truly innocent; that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. It also suggests that those with the greatest power often have trouble with the basic truths of life. Typically, those in power will sacrifice the truth in service of their own vanity or to save their positions and gain greater wealth or advantage. In the halls of power, “one bag of money is usually stronger than two bags of truth.” Yet, that is not the only problem. It is also true that most people would rather be handed an easy lie than search for a difficult truth, especially if the lie suits their own short-term aims.
Important truths are always being lost or else being covered up. So, the story illustrates that often a trick is required if we are to arrive at the truth. We must trick ourselves into remembering what is truly important for the authenticity and shared meaning of our mutual lives. A sense of justice is one of the deepest of the human senses. And loyalty can only become a genuine quality when it serves something that transcends individual power or mere opportunity.
The word loyalty comes from French roots that suggest “legitimacy and honesty” as well as fidelity. Thus, genuine loyalty is a matter of both principled conduct and honest feeling. Being closer to a sense of devotion, loyalty cannot be demanded; rather it must be earned in service to the highest human ideals. For, “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
So, the truth may set you free, but first it will make you miserable. And we are in one of those miserable situations where finding the truth becomes a necessity in order for any sense of justice and unity to return to our collective lives. Amidst all the big lies, fake news and alternative facts, some basic truths must be found or we may all lose our way. In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act and arriving at the truth can be a genuine way to restore public trust.
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